Oxford American, issue 99: Kentucky Music Issue (winter 2017)

You can see further details or purchase this issue here, and I do recommend it.

I’m amazed, again, at my enjoyment of this magazine, especially in its Southern Music issues, this one about Kentucky – and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many names I knew, both in contributing writers (a few associated with West Virginia Wesleyan) and in musicians. I shouldn’t put these mags off so long; I enjoy them so much.

I am reminded of past OA music issues, of course, and of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. The liner notes, so to speak, in this music issue for the accompanying album of 27 tracks often expand into mini-essays not only describing the music but arguing for its place in history, its importance, its context… as when I read Poetics, I find myself recognizing something I’d been missing: music written of as the art form it can be. I haven’t found enough of this in the world, I guess. Also, of course, OA‘s concentration on the American South overlaps with my own concerns, and our musical tastes so far line up nicely too.

I am also astonished to see the same themes that plague my own mind and life keep recurring… it was one thing to find the theme of home-seeking in Matt Ferrence’s Appalachia North, which I am reading now, a book I chose for its relevance to my own obsessions. But the same themes turn up in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m listening to on audio now (birthday present from my mom, thanks Mom)… and the music of Kentucky often as not approaches them too. Look at Harry Dean Stanton explicating “Cancion Mixteca”:

I see it as, when you’re truly at home there’s no more suffering… crying to get back to where you come from.

Maybe this is what’s so haunting and impossible about our (apparently universal) yearning for home: that we’re trying to get to place with no suffering, where everything is resolved. Talk about setting yourself up to be disappointed.

Or this:

Inoculated with a love of and fascination with her homeplace, Rachel Grimes became a student of its history.

Again I’m thinking of Appalachia North, Matt Ferrence’s research-rich investigation of his own home: work I aspire to do for mine. Partly I self-select (consciously and not) to expose myself to the media that I am likely to appreciate, of course. But doesn’t it also seem like we encounter things in groups or bunches? A new topic is suddenly all around us. I remember the first time I heard of the concept of a murder ballad. It was from a woman from Kentucky (of course), a fellow student in my MFA program. I was intrigued by the concept; and suddenly murder ballads were all around me. Again from this Kentucky album & magazine: the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which I can’t say for sure isn’t the first one I ever heard, sung by Amanda Jo on the dorm steps at dusk in West Virginia’s July, backlit by fireflies.

Perhaps I most loved the brief notes on each song included with the cd that comes with this magazine, those succinct reasons why King Kong’s “Me Hungry,” Freakwater’s “My Old Drunk Friend,” and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine” join Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers and Les McCann. Reading these paragraphs and listening to the songs and making my own observations about the music and meaning is always the most special treat of an OA music issue. But there was so much I loved here: Jason Howard*’s “If God Had a Name,” about Joan Osborne’s influence on his own life and spirituality (I love the song, too). Jeffrey A. Keith’s study of the Appalshop*. John Thomason on John Prine’s Paradise. Ashley Bloom’s lovely essay “Fire in My Bones” on religion and reclaiming her body. Crystal Wilkinson’s story “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal,” a piercing piece of fiction to cleanse the palate, except it’s more flavorful than any palate cleanser. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Death Rattle” was a remarkable piece of investigation, even anthropology. And of course, Silas House*’s gorgeous feature, quoted below. So much astonishingly lovely writing, throughout.

Zandria F. Robinson’s feature, “Border Wars,” confounded me some; sometimes I didn’t know what her sentences meant, although they were always lovely. I found myself both nodding emphatically along, and also sometimes disagreeing. It was an engaging piece of writing, and I guess any differences I felt with her drive home the point about shifting borders and differing definitions, and how they can divide us. If I didn’t always agree, I certainly respected and admired.

David Ramsey’s “Tuned Up in the Spirit,” about the Old Regular Baptists and their line-called music, gave me a little trouble as well. It was a bit too many pages of religion (perhaps without quite enough music) for my tastes. And when he notes that the Old Regulars forbid woman from leading songs, preaching, or taking part in church business, and then moves right along, I think, only a man could brush past that.

Here are a few of the lines I marked, usually in noticing how they speak to my own home-seeking.

This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place – no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes – is an elemental theme running through [this issue].

From Deputy Editor Maxwell George’s introduction to “The Music of Kentucky.”

Ronni Lundy quotes Dwight Yoakum:

…you have to break the ties to be yourself, and then you see how much those ties meant to you, so you try to put them back. Only you can’t really do it. You can’t do either all the way. But that’s where the story is, right? That place in the middle, isn’t that where it’s art?

This quotation means a great deal to Lundy, too – it gives her the title of her piece on Yoakum, “That Place in the Middle.”

From House’s inspired essay “Watershed,” on the Phipps Family:

There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction – none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in American, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance…

And of course, you know what I’m going to say next, that all of this is true of most places in America. A wound, a poem, a contradiction. (I wish I’d written that.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about the jawbone as a musical instrument, and its roots in slavery:

Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.

Forget it. This stuff is gold. Get all the Oxford American music issues you can.


Rating: 9 stays out of a man’s shirt collar.

*Recognize these names? From Hillbilly.

One Response

  1. And you say you don’t understand poetry… hah!
    Forget it….

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